Tribes with ancestral ties to Kentucky have not been consulted about an archaeological site discovered last summer during a survey for a natural gas pipeline.
In August, crews surveying a proposed route for the Bluegrass Pipeline stumbled on artifacts and human remains that are believed to be prehistoric. Although state land historically belonged to the Cherokee, Shawnee, Chickasaw and Choctaw, none of the tribes were alerted when the discovery was made—or before the items were removed from the site.
Among the items found is a shard of bone that later was confirmed to be a fragment of a human skull. Artifacts including tools and other items also were collected from a rock shelter, said Nancy O’Malley, assistant director of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Signs of ongoing looting prompted archaeologists to remove the items and send them to the museum for research and safe-keeping.
“We are holding a small quantity of artifacts, including a cranial fragment,” O’Malley said. “We are assuming they are prehistoric.”
The museum makes an inventory of all artifacts and human remains. That inventory is published periodically and federally recognized tribes are made aware of items that may be of interest.
More than six months after the discovery, however, tribes have not yet been invited into the conversation—and no one wants to take the blame.
“My experience is that when remains are found, law enforcement is called out and tribes are notified,” said Leslie Barras, a Louisville, Kentucky-based attorney whose practice includes historic preservation cases.
“Tribes don’t always want the remains removed, and here the tribes had no opportunity to express their views,” she said. “I feel the way this is handled is so disrespectful.”
The controversy began last summer when Williams and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners—the two companies constructing the 27-inch-wide, 271-mile-long Bluegrass Pipeline—sent cultural resource surveyors to Hardin County, Kentucky, to look at a proposed route.
When a rock shelter and artifacts were uncovered on privately owned land, the companies called in a bioarchaeologist who confirmed a skull fragment was human, Williams spokeswoman Sara Deldago said. Pipeline representatives informed the landowner and notified the county sheriff and the coroner’s office. They also sought assistance from the Office of the State Archaeologist at the University of Kentucky, where the remains were sent once they were determined to be prehistoric.
“Prior to our archaeological surveyors beginning their activities, it was noted that this tract had been previously disturbed by others,” Delgado said. “We have taken all necessary precautions to keep information about the site and details of this site’s location confidential in order to protect it from any additional disturbances.”
After the discovery, Williams developed and surveyed an alternate route that avoids the archaeological site, but when the company left the site, it also left unanswered questions about jurisdiction and whose responsibility it was to inform tribes.
Before beginning construction, Williams had to apply to the Army Corps of Engineers for federal permits. Because the artifacts were discovered during a preliminary survey, however, the application submitted to the Corps did not include the burial site.
“If there are remains discovered on any Corps project, we are responsible along with the county and tribal nations to coordinate,” Corps spokeswoman Carol Laboshosky said. “The human remains and cultural resources were not applicable because they weren’t part of the application.”
Barras argues that the Corps is reneging on its responsibilities to involve tribes.
“The Corps has a legal obligation to have ongoing consultations with tribes of any matter with which the tribes will have an interest,” she said. “The Corps is taking a very narrow view of its obligations and has chosen not to involve the tribes.”
The burial site is no longer a concern for Williams or the Corps, said Kary Stackelbeck, site protection program administrator for the Kentucky State Historic Preservation Office. Because the pipeline will take a different route, neither entity is involved in the larger conversation about jurisdiction or tribal rights.
Meanwhile, information remains sparse about the age of the human remains or other identifying features, Stackelbeck said.
“We have concerns and we feel that there is a need to attend to the situation appropriately,” she said. “There are a lot of unknowns at this point.”
The lingering questions have prompted members of the American Indian Movement in Kentucky and Indiana to call for action. AIM wants the state of Kentucky to file charges against the companies responsible for disrupting the graves and for regional tribes to be contacted immediately.
“We know that in the process of building this pipeline across the state they will encounter hundreds if not thousands of burial and other sacred sites,” states a December 4 press release from AIM. “We will be protesting and using every legal means possible to stop the further desecration of our sacred sites and the environment.”